Because of a bit of a mix-up, I happened to read David Brooks’ yearly discussion of the Sidney Awards, The Sidney Awards, Part 1. There is nothing quite like reading David Brooks or Thomas Friedman or oh so many other major newspaper columnists to make a writer feel good about himself. With Brooks, one gets a beautiful combination of lazy thinking, boring prose, and intellectual pretense. And all of this comes together perfectly when Brooks discusses work by people who can actually think and write reasonably well without undue pretense.
In this collection, he tries to figure out if there is more to humans than just a bunch of electrochemical processes going on in the brain. Brooks is clearly divided on the issue. The religious part of him wants to think that there is something other-worldly about humans—that soul that’s gonna go to heaven and party until forever never comes. But the political part of him wants to think that humans are just a special kind of resource that businesses use to bring products to market. Having read him for years, I know where he comes down on all this. Profits over Prophets. I’ve never met a big time conservative who wasn’t perfectly clear on that issue. Profits over Prophets.
Does Science Explain All?
He starts by discussing two opposing essays by Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier. Brooks refers to them as “two intellectual heavyweights.” Well, he got that half right. Pinker is an intellectual heavyweight. Wieseltier is best described as a prominent fight promoter. These two guys tackle the question of whether science can or rather more correctly could some day tell us everything about everything. I haven’t read the articles and I have no intention of doing so. It would be hard to find a more boring question to think about. But the way that Brooks writes about the articles is so shamelessly biased as to be comical:
Wieseltier counters that few believers take Scripture literally. They interpret. Meanwhile, science simply can’t explain many of the most important things. Imagine a scientific explanation of a beautiful painting, based, say, on a chemical analysis of the paint. “Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.” The scientists deny the differences between the realms of human existence and simplify reality by imposing their methods even where they can’t apply.
That’s a knockout for Wieseltier, don’t you think? Of course, there are a couple of problems. One is that, in fact most believers take Scripture literally. A 2004 CBS poll found that 55% of Americans think that God created man literally as it says in the Bible. That’s not “few,” that’s “most.” This is the number one weapon in the arsenal of religious apologists. Well, no one really believes that nonsense! But of course, they do. And when they are all alone, they encourage each other to think that nonsense. But that’s a minor issue. Let’s get to the big problem.
Pinker is not talking about finding beauty in the chemistry of the paints used by an artist. He’s a cognitive scientist. When he says that science can explain everything, he’s talking about understanding the chemistry that goes on in the brain. Why does one painting cause the brain to release endorphins while another does not? I don’t know if Wieseltier is presenting this “chemistry of the paint” strawman to knock down, but Brooks sure is. And that’s where he leaves it.
If two intelligent people were going to discuss this kind of thing, they wouldn’t be talking about a human’s reaction to art. They would be talking about whether humans could ever understand why the universe exists. And by the way: it is possible that there is an answer to that question. I believe that certain findings of math indicate that some day we will be able to prove that such a question is beyond the power of a machine that is limited to the perfect intellectual potential of the universe. In other words, it might be possible to prove that nothing can ever fully explain itself. If Pinker wants to write a book about that, I’d be interested in reading it. I’m not sure Wieseltier is even capable of understanding the question. And I know that Brooks isn’t.
Do Elephants Have Souls That We Can’t Bother Defining?
Brooks next discusses Caitrin Nicol’s essay Do Elephants Have Souls? All I can tell from what he wrote is that Nicol thinks elephants do have souls, but isn’t really clear on what souls are. I don’t know what the big deal is. To me, the soul is the essence of a person. It is what I think I am that is distinct from the environment that I live in. But for religious folk like David Brooks, it is far more difficult. And his difficulty with the word takes him back to his unfair discussion of the Pinker-Wieseltier debate. But I don’t think it is just Brooks’ problem.
He quotes Nicol as writing “when we talk about it, we all mean more or less the same thing: what it means for someone to bare it, for music to have it, for eyes to be the window to it, for it to be uplifted or depraved.” Really?! That’s award-winning writing? Because I don’t think the eyes are the windows to the soul, I don’t think people bare their soul except in the sense that they always do, I don’t usually refer to music as having soul, unless I am referring to the music of the 1960s and 1970s that combined R&B with gospel music. I don’t think we all mean more or less the same thing. Most of the people I talk to think the soul is something that lives in the body and goes up to heaven when they die. I don’t think that at all. I’m sure that elephants have souls in the sense that I understand the term soul. But it doesn’t seem like Nicol and Brooks are clear enough on the term soul to say anything at all about elephants.
Did Aaron Swartz Die Because He Was Too Free?
It seems that Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a “brilliant” profile of Aaron Swartz. That may well be. But clearly, Brooks has an ax to grind when it comes to the question of the brilliant and depressed Swartz. Brooks callously observes, “He began writing big books or starting great projects, but he usually didn’t finish them.” Well, I guess that’s one way of saying that he was an idea guy. He was Frank in “Frank, Frank turned the crank; Joe, Joe made it go.” But you could just call him a loser who didn’t finish what he started. Less than a year after his tragic suicide, I guess the “loser” definition is the reasonable choice to explain Swartz. He uses the story to argue in favor of structure and not allowing those kids too much intellectual freedom. No mention is made of a government “justice” system gone wild, pushing an already fragile “soul” over the edge. But who needs those details when Brooks has an important story to tell about the evils of freedom and the uses really smart people put that freedom to.
Can Interviews Reveal the Ghost in the Machine?
Finally, we get to Don Peck’s essay about better ways to hire people to become corporate cogs, They’re Watching You at Work. The old ways of hiring are not working. I have no trouble believing that. “In one study at Xerox, previous work experience had no bearing on future productivity.” What’s more, people are hired more for how they get along socially with the existing staff than anything else. (This isn’t how Brooks puts it, because he doesn’t think that deeply.) Now I guess some companies are making people play video games so they can get the perfect employee with “a strict work ethic but a loose capacity for ‘mind wandering.'” Brooks tells us that it won’t matter if you went to Harvard or Yale. Of course, Brooks doesn’t like this idea at all. He thinks the analytics can’t work because there is something special in there that you just can’t test for. So these video games can’t find that special Brooksian “soul” but graduating from Harvard or Yale or (Brooks’ own school) the University of Chicago can.
I can tell you one thing. If these computer analytics do take hold in corporate America, they will only be used at the end of the interview process. Management will first make sure that you are the right kind of person. If you are black, they will make sure you are the right kind of black. You know the drill. And then they will do a background check on you to see if you’ve ever be arrested for possessing half a joint. And then they’ll run a credit check to make sure yours is at least in the high 700s if not a perfect 850. And then they’ll give you their little analytic test. But at that point, who really cares? They know you’re the “right” kind of person and you’ll fit in fine.
It’s possible that there really is a “ghost in the machine” of us humans. David Brooks really wants to believe that. At the same time, all of his political philosophy just wants to treat humans like they are cogs in the business machine. Like most conservatives, the idea that humans are special and deserve dignity and respect is just dogma you recite for the hour or so per week when you go to your holy institution. The rest of the time, the world is a social Darwinian nightmare where the weak get eaten by the strong because that’s what really matters. Humans are really important in the mythical afterlife. But in the real here-and-now, humans don’t matter a bit.
Profits over Prophets.